So why do many people refer to the nearly 40-year-old woman and her peers as one? The innocuous-sounding word holds more power than we realize.
Several weeks ago, at a friend’s birthday dinner, the woman sitting across the table from me talked about her new boss at work. “I love her. She’s so supportive. She’s just a great girl.”
Then, the following morning, while catching up with a former student over coffee, he mentioned a colleague whose name I couldn’t remember. “Oh, you know,” he explained, “that girl who wrote the book about refugees that won all those awards?”
Why are there so many girls? I’m not referring to Lena Dunham’s HBO series or the 8-year-old bundles of energy who live next door and cover the sidewalk in chalk-art. I’m talking about girls used synonymously with women. No matter how you define woman—a conversation that had been pushed out from the margins by Laverne Cox and Jill Soloway’s Emmy-winning Transparent, and even further into the mainstream more recently by Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as trans—most grown female-identifying people do not want to be professionally referred to as a girl. Not a trans woman, not a cis woman, not a White woman, not a woman of color: We’re all adults here. I’m hardly the first, and won’t be the last, to suggest that words reproduce power and status differences in society. Gloria Steinem, appearing on a 1960s TV show, gave Hugh Hefner a talking-to for referring to grown women as girls. The pioneering linguist Robin Tolmach Lakoff was one of the first to argue in 1975 that words construct our social and political reality and contribute to gender bias in powerful ways. Her seminal work, Language and Women’s Place, urged readers to consider how the words we use influence our interactions with one another and the world.
Has anything changed since then? I’m a humanities Ph.D. living in San Francisco, surrounded by smart professional types. Although I’m approaching 40, men and women all around me don’t hesitate to use girl when talking about me or my peers. A colleague sent me a note a few days ago, reminding me to take care of a missing invoice: “Did you talk to the girl at HR yet?” I did talk to a person in HR—that “girl,” it turns out, was around 50 years old.
Louis C.K. has a stand-up bit about how he desires a “real woman,” not a girl, despite prevailing cultural norms. “You’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet,” he tells the audience. “That’s when people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.” Woman isn’t simply “the counterpart of man,” as the dictionary suggests. Woman means bearing children, suffering, looking haggard, Louis C.K. is saying—it’s practically an insult. (Never mind the obvious fact that whether or not you have children has no bearing, so to speak, on your status as a woman.) Yet womanhood still gets wrapped up in motherhood. Why? Because woman is a cultural category, based on the social construction of biological differences, as many of us learned in college. And yet, Lena Dunham’s HBO series about four twentysomethings floundering in New York City, are not regarded as women, but girls. It’s a social condition.
Last month, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, the stars and executive producers of the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, told reporters that their male co-stars, supporting actors with smaller parts, are getting the same compensation. Fans have expressed their outrage on their behalf, with a petition garnering more than 36,000 signatures, asking Netflix executives to fix this latest example of gender-based pay discrimination, which, given a spate of headlines, seems especially pernicious in Hollywood. According to the American Association of University Women, in nearly every occupation, women are paid less than men. Until the age of 35, most women bring in 90 percent of what men make. After that, the discrepancy grows. For women over 35, median earnings are only 75 to 80 percent of what men take home. Even worse, the figures haven’t budged in a decade.
Few scholars doubt that words contribute to these structural inequalities in powerful ways. Language, with all its subtle implications, conveys meaning beyond the literal. A 2003 headline-making study by two economists, Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan of MIT, uncovered a depressing fact about the power of a name. It is far easier for Emily Walsh and Brendan Baker to land a job than for Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones, even when the four candidates share identical credentials. The study’s authors found that job-seekers with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to receive a callback than those with African-American sounding names. Names—and nouns for that matter—are so important because they can have detrimental effects on perceptions of a person. And in our deeply troubled society, we need to talk more about how perceptions work. As Robin Tolmach Lakoff has shown, girl can serve as a euphemism for immaturity and unprofessionalism, or can be used to remove the sexuality lurking behind woman. When was the last time you heard a post-adolescent male, let alone a professor or professional, described as that boy in the third-floor office?
Despite the obvious, girl is still pervasive in our culture. It comes off friendly and inviting, as in “Where all my girls at?” or Ryan Gosling’s “Hey girl.” Women have appropriated girl for years now, but to what end? In 1997, Jane Pratt told the L.A. Times: “We’ve taken back the word and are using the way we want—girl power, girl talk. It’s about girls supporting each other and reveling in what’s fun about being a girl … Girl power means something different from feminism.” Is it really that simple? For starters, the trouble with girl is that the more we use it, the more marginalized woman becomes. Subjecting friends and colleagues to an informal poll, I learned that woman sounds formal and serious to some, bordering on clinical: “55-year-old woman presents with acute onset vertigo.” This is where the problem lies.
In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, Ellen Pao’s gender bias lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a prestigious venture-capital firm, continues to make waves nearly three months after its denouement. Pao lost the case, but the trial has focused attention on gender relations in Silicon Valley, which are anything but equitable. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s current CEO and president, and Google’s first woman engineer, was once labeled a “goo-girl.” Mayer resisted: “I’m not a girl at Google, I’m a geek at Google.” Editors covering the industry can’t seem to resist slapping the same headline on their stories—“Valley Girl”—whether the subject is Ellen Pao, Marissa Mayer, or someone else with a vagina. It makes me wonder why Girls in Tech, a San Francisco organization dedicated to “the promotion, growth, and success of entrepreneurial and innovative women in the technology space” didn’t choose to call itself “Women in Tech.” I guess the world wants girls, not women.
Words aren’t just segments of a sentence. As Robin Tolmack Lakoff says, they’re hardly abstract and impotent. “Language uses us as much as we use language.” The more I hear girl and the older I get, the more convinced I become that the power to make language and through it, meaning, is still the provenance of men.
The corollary to this is that you are what you say. The words you use indicate what you think and how aware (or unaware) you are of the extent and reach of gender bias in our society.
You go, girl. No, seriously. Go.
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